I am trying to gather as many of these isssues as I can out of the story. I am writing a short essay for my college English class. I am not sure if I am on the right path or not. So far I have gathered that the story took place around the great depression and that the mother is a part of the poor working class. I am lost on the direction that I should go on my paper. My thesis question is, "How do economic and social circumstances affect the ability to take care of Emily?"
At the time of the setting of "I Stand Here Ironing," divorce was not common, nor was the abandonment of a father from his family. So, when Emily's mother is separated from her husband she feels especially bereft and guilty. Without other single-mother families to whom Emily can identify, she feels isolated, abandoned.
In addition, the Depression-era generation never forgot what deprivation they experienced despite the comfortable economic times of the 1950, so there was a large "generation gap" between them and their children who knew little of such deprivation. As a consequence, Emily does not understand her mother's having to relinquish her to a home and the lack of time that her mother had for her.
Olsen has said about “I Stand Here Ironing” that the story, while not autobiographical, is “somewhat close to my own life.” In an interview, she said that she has “always been interested in the hardest job of all in society—having to raise kids on your own.” In Tillie Olsen (Twayne, 1991), Mickey Pearlman and Abby H. Werlock review critical reactions to “I Stand Here Ironing”:
In the story, a mother who was young and inexperienced recounts with “almost painful” honesty her forced neglect of her oldest child in a depression era when poverty was unrelieved by the now much maligned welfare state. In the story, the mother is called a child “of depression, of war, of fear.” The mother is haunted by her memories of Emily’s cries and weeping; she has wrenching memories of Emily’s unhappiness in loveless institutions.
The critics note the cost to Emily, as we observe “her stiffness, her quietness, her trouble at school.” We see her suffering nightmares and “long periods of silent solitude,” feeling unloved during the dark days. The mother/daughter relationship even now has an element of coldness; it “even now lacks overt involvement and warmth.” However, some critics see a silver lining: Emily has discovered her gift for bringing happiness “to strangers who need the humor, the entertainment, the warmth she is able to provide them.” In some ways, “the mother’s strength has been handed down to her daughter.”
Emily “illustrates the enigma of human life: it contains poverty and tragedy and pain but also some fulfilling of potential, a desire to survive.” The “feminine image” of the dress “coupled with that of the iron” suggests “the harsh oppressive molding reality of society and circumstance and its effect on women. Yet neither the mother nor Emily has succumbed.”